Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I can't think of anything good to write so I think I'll just throw some words together and hit 'publish.' Is that ok with you?

This one is for young composers. Whenever I encourage students to write music, the first barrier they come up against is they "can't think of anything good." And when they do think of something, it isn't good enough. Well, meet Joseph Haydn.

He's generally thought of as a pretty decent composer. Here's his entry. It's a movement from an early piano sonata:

Haydn, Sonata no. 12 in A, movement three: Finale

Now, at the risk of ruining the pleasure you get from listening to it by explaining what's going on, possibly making it seem boring and mudane, "decoolifying it" by taking it apart to examine and seeing whether that rush of notes really has anything to say, let me show you what his idea is made of. Let's break it down. It may sound pretty cool with all of those notes rushing around together, but sometimes those notes are just a lot of pre-fabricated activity that isn't really saying all that much. In the first few measures of this piece most of the activity is in the left hand, in a standard device known as an Alberti Bass. Here's what the right hand melody would sound like all alone without that Alberti bass in the left hand (which, by the way, is just a simple major chord whose members are played one at a time--1 5 3 5 3 5 and so on. It's named after a fellow who, if he didn't invent the idea, overused it considerably):


Now, since those rapid melodic twitches happen to have a name--they are known as inverted mordants, a kind of melodic "ornament" which had been around for a while by the time Haydn used it. (The first note of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in d minor is an inverted mordent.) Inverted mordents work like this: you play a note, play the note immediately below it in the scale, and then come back to the original note, all really quickly. You don't actually have to write out all three notes, you just write the first one and put a squiggle above it with a line through it--it's a kind of musical shorthand.  Let's get rid of the ornament, too, keeping in mind that Joe didn't really think of that on his own, either.  So here's what's left of our tune.


It's just four notes going up! How's that for not all that special. In fact, this is starting to look like the musical equivalent of cotton candy--just a blob of sugar whipped up into a large clump of mostly air and sold for 6$ at the country fair. Because without all that dressing from the left hand (which was a typical thing to do at the time) and those Baroque borrowed ornaments (also pretty standard) all he really had going for him was half of a scale. And even with all of those additions to make it sound like more was going on than actually was there is a real danger things are going to get boring fast. And he knows it, too. So here's what he does next:


A downward plunge. The right hand speeds up, so to speak. Like a rollercoaster, we go up slowly, and go downhill in a hurry.

Now the important thing to note here is that Haydn didn't look at those first four notes, decide they were boring, ball them up and start over (and over and over). He present his idea, which after all lasts about 5 seconds, gave us all a chance to figure out what was going on and then to just begin to wonder if things weren't getting a little predictable and THEN just as we started to think we needed a little more than a single ornament on every downbeat, gave it to us. Just what we needed, once we had a chance to notice we needed it. That takes a little patience from the composer, and the ability to see what is missing from an idea--and to let it be missing for a moment, and then to balance it after the listener has time to notice it too, and not before!

It's also a reminder that composers don't always have great ideas. And for many composers (not all of them) the important thing is what you do with the idea once you have it. That's often what makes the piece interesting--not the first line, but the rest of the story. Not the characters, but what happens to them in the course of the novel. In which case, sometimes it is better to have an idea that is pretty simple because it is easier to do things with it.

Joe Haydn's piece is not exactly a masterpiece. Maybe it is more the equivalent of musical chitchat than a great speech. But it really isn't bad. It has charm, it is fun to play and listen to, and even if he was having a bad day in the inspiration department he was able to make a lot out of it. That's where craft and skill come in. They are pretty underrated by the general public. But composers know their worth. Sometimes they make all the difference.

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